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No pesticides in baby food – sign the petition!

baby being fed pic

The Safe Food Campaign is asking parliament to have zero tolerance for pesticides in baby food. This would bring New Zealand into line with the European Union, where since 2004 processed infant and young children's food must not contain individual pesticide residues greater than 0.01ppm (mg/kg). We also think the government should do a more extensive analysis of baby food than has been the case up to now and carry out a pesticide reduction programme. This would help to ensure that fewer pesticides are detected in baby food.

Pesticides in NZ baby food

In the last New Zealand Total Diet Survey of 2009 (these are carried out about every five years) 31.3% of baby food contained pesticide residues. Five pesticides were detected in 32 samples, which included 8 samples each of formula, cereal based, custard/fruit and savoury weaning foods. We can contrast this to the European Union, which in 2010 found just over 8% of 1,828 baby foods contained residues. Of concern is that three of the pesticides found in NZ baby food, all fungicides, are particularly hazardous for young children: iprodione, imazalil and the dithiocarbamates, of which mancozeb is common. Iprodione and imazalil are both likely to cause cancer, iprodione is a suspect endocrine disruptor and imazalil is a developmental or reproductive toxin. The fungicide mancozeb and others like it have a breakdown product or metabolite called ethylene thiourea or ETU for short, which increases on exposure to heat and in storage. This metabolite is a probable human carcinogen, a suspect endocrine disruptor and a developmental and reproductive toxin.

Vulnerability of children

The extra vulnerability of babies and young children to pesticides is well explained in Meriel Watts' book Poisoning our Future: Children and Pesticides (reviewed in this issue). Children have unique windows of vulnerability which adults do not have. This basically means that it is not the dose which is critical, but when children are exposed. Doses which may not have an effect on adults can disrupt organ formation and cause lifelong organ impairments, particularly for the foetus in the womb and young babies. With both carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, no safe level has been scientifically established, and doses thousands of times lower than those generally considered toxic are known to interfere with normal human development.

The failure of regulatory authorities

Regulatory authorities around the world unfortunately fail to protect our children from these toxins, relying as they do on outdated toxicology that assumes a toxin below a certain level is safe. Watts in her book quotes Quijano, Professor of Toxicology in the Philippines: "Government policies guided by supposedly ‘science-based’ risk assessment methodology have proven to be more effective at protecting vested interests than in protecting health and the environment...Decisions that tend to protect health and environment are allowed only in so far as these do not threaten significantly the dominant economic interests or only when strong public pressure is exerted on government... Even intergovernmental bodies are not immune to corporate influence as technical committees are packed with corporate scientists or scientists under their influence."

Time to act

It is time to exert pressure on our politicians with the not unreasonable request of zero tolerance of pesticide residues in baby food. Children would also take in fewer pesticides if a pesticide reduction programme were to be put in place. Such a programme would also bring NZ into line with other OECD countries. In the meantime it is wise for parents and prospective parents to follow the precautionary principle and preferably grow or buy organic food.

By Alison White, Safe Food Campaign, February 2014.

A version of this article first appeared in Organic NZ March/April 2014.

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